As the role of education is shifting in order to better prepare students for the 21st century, it is crucial that every now and then we stop and reflect on what is our philosophy of education. Within schoolrooms and think tanks, people everywhere are proposing ideas wildly divergent and have ideas that little resemble one another. Some want our schools to churn out excellent test-takers, while others seem to want our students to explore and create all day. Some want a return to a solid academic foundation of yesteryear, while the focus on “STEAM” and makerspaces is becoming vogue. The options are quickly becoming overwhelming.
So what is the role of American schools today?
I would like to propose a philosophy in the image of a three-legged stool.
On the first leg stands student learning. Though this might seem obvious, I think that it is essential that we remember this in the shuffle to change and improve schools. We need to find ways to track whether our students are learning and how much they are learning. This needs to be in both content and skills, as students need to be prepared to enter school at the next level (If we teach middle school, they need to be prepared for high school. If we teach high school, they need to be prepared for college.) Although we shouldn’t overemphasize preparation for future school, we shouldn’t simply leave students unprepared for the next level.
The second leg includes all the skills needed for the 21st century, most commonly referred to as the four C’s (creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking). We cannot simply prepare test takers and analyzers; what good is it if students can analyze, but can’t imagine what the next great product will be? What if we help students analyze the last political election, but they can’t help a candidate win the next election? Almost all endeavors in life require some level of thinking of something unique and new. Most work will also be done in groups or teams; adults do not simply work alone and pump out worksheets.
The third leg sometimes gets forgotten in the shuffle, but it is critical nonetheless. Students need to learn the virtues of hard work and responsibility. Although it is tempting to simply give students high marks for learning material or creating high-quality projects, hard work and effort are essential for the 21st century workforce (and every workforce that has ever existed in human history). This is where students need to face penalties for late work (which can be docked points instead of being merely given zeroes). In the end, if our students do not work hard at their jobs, they will soon find themselves unemployed. Part of working is actually doing one’s job.
Although these ideas might sound simple, most schools and teachers tend to overemphasize one at the detriment of the other two. Many traditional teachers tend to push students to take responsibility for work without reflecting on the value of the worksheets being assigned or whether or not the tests and quizzes are leading to actual learning (let alone giving students a chance to be creative). Others might measure student learning and analyze data, but seem to lack a focus on placing responsibility on students. Those who advocate creativity and makerspaces are doing great things and are pushing students to be lifelong creators, which is certainly a good thing, but it is important to remember that students shouldn’t just be creating all day–they do need to learn essential life and content-related skills.
It is ultimately the balance of these three legs that will best improve our schools and better prepare our students for the future.